Around a dozen fridge reprocessing plants have been installed in the last 18 months in response to new rules requiring recyclers to remove ozone-depleting substances (ODSs) from insulating foams as well cooling circuits (see table). Most remove the ODSs from both the cooling circuit and foam.
The plants use a range of technologies. Two, in Lewes and Swindon, employ state-of-the-art technology supplied by German company SEG which meets the German RAL standard for fridge recycling.
In addition, there are many firms which collect old fridges from local authorities and deliver them to recyclers. Upon delivery, many of these fridges are found to have no ODS in the cooling circuit - either because they were damaged en route and the ODS leaked out, or because the fridges were already de-gassed. It is widely believed that many smaller collectors do not recover the coolant but simply saw off the tailpipe and vent the ODSs to atmosphere.
In the UK, RAL offers to validate recycling plants against its standard and award a quality mark to operators. Although it claims the highest environmental performance - capable of recovering 90% of the ODSs from the foam - operators using other technologies say they see little point in paying for quality assurance.
In November, the RAL Quality Assurance Association's UK office claimed that the Government could not say what quantity of CFCs has been recovered to date or how well recycling plants are performing because the Environment Agency is failing to enforce the new system. "We may appear to have got rid of the 'fridge mountains', but where have all the CFCs gone?" asked its UK director, Jeff Weeks.
The EU Regulation on ODSs required Member States to report to the European Commission by 31 December 2001 on the systems established to promote the recovery of ODSs and other "controlled substances", such as ammonia and hydrocarbons, used in fridges, including the facilities available. They were also due to report on the quantities of refrigerants recycled or destroyed. In November, the Regulation was revised so that Member States must now report every year.
Mr Weeks says he has requested the data many times from the Environment Department and the Environment Agency, only to be fobbed off. ENDS understands that the Government did supply 2001 data to the Commission last year but they were rejected as being too vague. The new requirement to report annually will force the Agency to address the issue.
Asked to supply the data for 2001 and 2002, the Agency told ENDS that it is "currently collating the information...as a high priority," and is also auditing the environmental performance of recyclers. The data should be available "in early 2004".
Mr Weeks also claims that, unlike the mobile plant validated by his company, many recyclers are receiving fridges which have already been de-gassed - sometimes illegally - and are therefore able to quote "rock bottom" prices to local authorities.
As an example, he said that two-thirds of the fridges going to Sims Metal's plant in Newport had broken circuits, whether through damage in transit or deliberate de-gassing, according to the Agency's Welsh office.
Mr Weeks is also angry that revised guidance on the recovery and disposal of controlled substances in fridges has yet to appear. When the original guidance was hastily issued in April 2002 an updated version was promised within six months, but it is not expected from the Agency until early next year.
Most other recyclers appear nonplussed by the issue. One said that as long as they were complying with the guidance, why should they be concerned? It is in RAL's interest, the company said, to seek to raise national standards because it would increase demand for its quality assurance scheme.
While this may be so, it does appear that the Agency and DEFRA have little idea of the proportions of ODSs that are being recovered or vented to atmosphere. If MPs get wind of the situation, the issue of fridges could return to haunt the Government once more.
Manchester-based Britannia Import and Export and its director were fined more than £35,000 in August for failing to produce records to show that the fridges were sent to authorised recyclers. It was also fined for stacking fridges up to the ceiling at one of its sites (ENDS Report 343, p 53 ).
On 20 October, a fire at Britannia's Twinings Road site in Trafford Park destroyed around half of the estimated 100,000 fridges stockpiled there. The units had all been de-gassed to remove the CFC coolant.
Fire crews attending the "massive blaze" were hampered by the poor storage of the units. Water had to be pumped from a nearby canal to fight the fire. Almost 100 fire-fighters attended the blaze. Early indications are that the blaze was started deliberately.
Unlucky Britannia has suffered four fires in little over a year. In September 2002, fire fighters had to scramble across the top of a three-metre high fridge stockpile at its Albert Street site to tackle a blaze. Two fires on 17 and 18 April 2003 destroyed most of the 30-40,000 fridges at its Stock Lane site. Arson is suspected in all three incidents.
A fire plan covering all of Britannia's sites, requiring the creation of fire breaks and improving security, was agreed between the company, the Agency and the fire brigade in May.
However, the company was some 6-8 weeks behind in implementing the plan at the time of the Twinings Road fire, according to the Agency. Officers inspecting Twinings Road on 16 September told Britannia that the site was in breach of the fire break condition in its licence.
All told, Britannia currently has some 200,000 fridges stored at its ten sites in Greater Manchester, but Twinings Road had far more than any other site. Waste management licences and planning permission have yet to be acquired for two sites.